Once called an “experiment” by prognosticating pundits in the past, live streaming TV has captured the attention of a wide audience, with Dish Network’s Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, and AT&T’s recently introduced DirecTV Now all in play. Channels and hit series that were once strictly bound by the confines of a cable subscription can now be accessed for a small monthly fee with no contract, no equipment rentals, and no crappy customer service to deal with. There’s never been a better time to kick cable to the curb.
Not everyone is cut out to be a “cord cutter,” though. Ditching cable or satellite service and the bill that goes with it sounds great in theory, but it’s not something you want to rush into without doing a little research and preparation first. As with most things, there’s a right way to go about cord cutting, and then there’s the way that sends you back to your cable company begging for forgiveness. We tend to prefer the right way … the awesome way.
Keep reading to find out the most cost-effective methods for dropping cable in favor of streaming.
First things first: How’s your internet?
The thing about internet-delivered TV is that you need a broadband connection that’s copacetic with the streaming lifestyle. This may seem like a foregone conclusion, but we want to make it clear that if you’re going to bet your precious entertainment future on your network, you best have a solid hookup. Netflix and other similar streaming video services suggest downstream speeds of 5Mbps, but that’s simply not going to hack it for most folks, especially those with families that might want to stream more than one show or movie at a time.
When new cord cutters are confronted with buffering, they are understandably frustrated.
Consider that 5Mbps may get you one HD video stream, but you may experience loading and buffering delays if your network is getting choked up with any other traffic. Cable TV doesn’t interrupt your show to buffer, so when new cord-cutters are confronted with delays, they are understandably frustrated. Avoid the buffer and upgrade your broadband speed if you can, otherwise it’s time to reconsider ditching cable.
We also recommend testing your internet speed at peak streaming hours (between 6 – 10 p.m. weekdays) to determine if your neighborhood struggles under the strain of heavy traffic. For instance, if you routinely get around 10Mbps downloads during the day, but that figure takes a dive to about 3Mbps around dinner time, you’ll want to call your internet provider to see if anything can be done. Fortunately, this is an increasingly rare problem, but better to check ahead.
Of course, if you’re looking to get into the streaming big leagues to access the growing array of 4K Ultra HD streaming content available, you’ll want to kick up your broadband speed a few more notches. For streaming services like Netflix, YouTube, and Amazon you’ll likely want to have at least 25Mbps on hand (which is what Netflix explicitly recommends). If you’re only going to be downloading 4K content from sites like FandangoNow or Ultraflix, 10Mbps will probably suffice. In any event, fast and reliable internet is an integral key to a positive streaming experience.
Get an HD antenna
Before you’ve canceled your cable or satellite subscription, you’ll first want to investigate what’s available to you via an HD antenna. For people in urban areas, a good HD antenna likely offers all four major networks (FOX, ABC, NBC, and CBS), along with 10-15 other selections (PBS, CW, etc) in full HD, for free. To make sure you’ll get decent reception, you can simply buy one and try it out, ask around the neighborhood, or try this antenna analysis tool which will tell you which channels you can expect to receive and even offers a standardized color-coded system that can recommend specific antenna types.
There are numerous antennas available that will nab you plenty of HD channels, but here are a few of our favorites:
ClearStream Eclipse ($50)
The ClearStream Eclipse has some of the best-rated performance in its class. The antenna is multi-directional, powerful, and surprisingly versatile. The Eclipse comes in four separate versions: 35, 50, 60, and 70-mile variations, so you’ll be able to snag a model that best suits your location. The double-sided adhesive mounting surface is black on one side, and white on the other, and it can be painted over so you’ll be able to integrate it into any decor. The circular design of the antenna is unique and provides an advantage in being better at picking up UHF signals (a type of HD TV signal) than most other indoor antennas. Plus, it’s multidirectional, so finding an ideal configuration where the signal is clearest is easy.
Leaf Metro ($20-$25)
We like the Leaf Metro because its small profile easily tucks away, without sacrificing much functionality. Though its range is limited to approximately 25 miles, it’s perfect for those living in smaller apartments or rented rooms, especially in urban environments where over-air TV signals are plentiful. To compound the versatility enabled by its tiny size, the antenna also come in either black or white, and you can also paint it to match your interior. Plus, its adhesive coating means it’ll stick to most any surface and can be moved to other locations with ease. An included 10-foot coaxial cable allows for fairly flexible installation.
Channel Master FLATenna ($10)
If you’re cutting the cord to save money, then it seems logical to want to save on an indoor antenna, too. Fortunately, the Channel Master FLATenna is one of the cheapest on the block, and performs nearly as well as other models five or six times its price. The FLATenna has a range of 35 miles, and it’s simple design is also multidirectional. The antenna’s surface is adhesive for easy attachment to windows or walls — wherever it picks up signals (and fits) best.
There are several more recommendations in our indoor antenna guide, which also includes explanations on how antennas work and how best to set them up.
Trade up for a real streaming device
You might have a Blu-ray player or smart TV with streaming apps on board, but if you’re going to transition to a full-time streaming entertainment plan, you’ll want a device purpose-built for the job.
Roku Premiere+ ($99)
For our money, the best and brightest offerings come from Roku. While every model the company sells has its merits, the best of the bunch has to be the Roku Premiere+. The Premiere+ improves on the previous best model, the Roku 4, by keeping 4K and the price tag but adding support for HDR and 802.11ac Wi-Fi. If you don’t need HDR, the Roku Premiere is cheaper and still offers 4K.
With thousands of available “channels,” Roku’s platform connects to virtually every major streaming service online. More importantly, the interface is very intuitive; you can quickly search for content across providers by actor, series or movie title, or the genre you’re looking for. The Roku interface will even tell you which services offer what you want for free, and which will charge for it. The remote is also super handy — you can even connect a pair of headphones for wireless listening late at night.
While the Roku Premiere+ is our standout favorite, there are some great alternatives, each with its own special something to offer. Here’s a rundown of some close contenders:
Apple TV ($69-$200)
After years of waiting, Apple finally debuted the latest version of its streaming box, which began shipping in October 2015. The new device comes in two versions: a 32GB version for $150, and a 64GB version for $200. The big seller for the latest Apple TV is its revamped touch-pad remote, which is designed to operate much more like an iPhone than its predecessor and it can also be used as a gaming remote. The new system is also faster, and more focused around integrating music and gaming, but it does not have 4K Ultra HD support. As such, many will want to go with an alternative like the Roku Premiere+ or the latest Amazon Fire TV (below).
Another option for the serious bargain seeker is to find the third generation model on a site like ebay, though we obviously can’t vouch for any reliability there. While the previous generation Apple TV is definitely showing its age, it’s still very handy for Apple fans thanks to Airplay, which easily allows you to stream media from your iPhone or iPad to the TV. Either way, if you’re a big-time Apple fan who won’t be getting into 4K in the foreseeable future, the Apple TV may be a viable choice as your streaming hub.
Check out our hands-on review of the Apple TV.
Amazon Fire TV ($99-140)
Amazon’s Fire TV burst on the scene in April of 2014 as a speedy way to stream, while also offering voice-activated search, and a wide selection of games. The second-generation of devices from Amazon (released in the fall of 2015) offer a whole new bag of tricks, including an updated Fire TV streaming stick with voice-activation ($50), 4K Ultra HD streaming support for the standard streaming box ($99), and an upgraded bundle for gaming that comes with a dedicated controller ($140). Fast, easy to use, and integrated with Amazon’s clever voice assistant, Alexa, Amazon’s streaming boxes make for enticing choices when setting up your cord-cutting system. Bonus for those who own an Amazon Echo speaker, as the two can communicate with each other, offering a bundle of possibilities not available with any other streaming set-top box.
Check out our full review of the Amazon Fire TV.
Chromecast Ultra ($69)
Chromecast, the wildly popular streaming dongle, doesn’t have a remote or on-screen menu, but it lets you use your smartphone or tablet to “cast” content at your TV, and it’s constantly being updated for new ways to play. The latest version of the device, the Chromecast Ultra, takes everything handy about earlier models but adds 4K resolution as well as HDR, with both Dolby Vision and HDR10 supported. If that’s too rich for your blood, the HD Chromecast is just half the price, and offers virtually all the same functionality. While the Chromecast is one of our favorite ways for quick and dirty streaming, search is still relatively limited via the Home app, and those who want to be able to exchange their phone or tablet for a more prominent interface on the big screen will want to go with one of the more traditional streaming boxes on our list.
Check out our full review of the Chromecast Ultra.
Round up your video streaming services
Now that you’ve gotten all of the hardware you’ll need, it’s time to consider which streaming services will best meet your entertainment needs. We suggest aiming to strike a balance between variety and cost.
An obvious choice, and one that is nearly essential to any cord-cutting list, Netflix’s streaming service costs $8-10 per month for single users, and extends up to $12 per month for a family plan that allows up to four users at once, with the added bonus of access to 4K content. Netflix’s catalog is loaded with full TV series (past seasons only), scores of movies both licensed and produced in-house, and original shows like Stranger Things, Marvel’s Daredevil, Master of None, and so many more, all of which come commercial free.
Amazon Prime Instant Video ($99/year, $9/month)
While Amazon’s Prime video service often crosses over into Netflix’s catalog, it does have exclusive rights to a host of classic HBO series like The Sopranos and Oz, along with its own original series such as the critically-acclaimed Transparent. The service has been working hard to close the gap with Netflix and beyond, including the addition of bundles like Showtime and Starz networks at reduced prices with a Prime account, along with some of the first streaming content available in both 4K and HDR. The company is even adding live TV from the likes of AMC and ESPN, among others, and also offers video on demand, allowing you to rent or buy newer movies and TV shows. Finally, Amazon has introduced a new monthly plan for $9 per month. However, if you tend to do much shopping at Amazon at all, Prime’s free 2-day shipping makes the $99/year subscription a much better deal.
The only choice out of the top 3 that plays commercials, Hulu is best loved for its selection of current seasons of popular TV shows, most of which show up on the site soon after their original air date. For those who want to have their cake and eat it, Hulu also offers a luxurious, commercial-free way to stream its growing catalog of original shows, network content, and movies for just $4 more a month — well worth it if you’re leaving behind the bonds of cable. With a wide variety of programming available via digital antenna, Hulu is an excellent way to supplement your services so you get almost all of the network content you crave, and a whole lot more.
Those who love HBO will want to weigh HBO Now high on the list when it comes to paring down your services. While its $15/month price point is the most expensive service on our list, that comes with the benefit of seeing all of the service’s latest shows, including Game of Thrones, Westworld, Silicon Valley, and more when they appear. Add to that a cascade of past classics, from Curb Your Enthusiasm to Deadwood, newer movie releases, and virtually everything on the network anytime on demand.
CBS’ premium network Showtime has made its own move into the standalone streaming game, calling its new streaming service simply (and confusingly) Showtime. As the name suggests, you’ll get virtually all the benefits of being a subscriber of Showtime’s cable version for its $11 per month price tag, and the service has also made deals to bundle with both Hulu and Amazon Prime at a reduced cost of $9 per month for each.
An on-demand version of much of CBS’ network programming is also offered on CBS All Access, which will run you $6 per month. It’s important to note, however, that the more you spread out your selection, the closer you’ll come to matching that dastardly cable bill every month. If you’re looking to save real bucks, choosing just two or three of our highlighted services should probably be your goal.
In addition to these choices, ESPN, Nickelodeon, and other networks and platforms are expected to follow suit soon, though ESPN has thus far limited its wares to live streaming platforms, like Dish’s Sling TV and Playstation Vue, which we’ll cover in more detail below.
Web TV — the final piece of the puzzle
The most-anticipated addition to the cord cutter lifestyle only arrived in January of 2015 with Dish Network’s Sling TV, the first service to offer cord cutters channels like ESPN, ESPN2, CNN, Cartoon Network, TBS, HGTV, Travel and others. While it might have been the first, others soon followed, and there are now three major options, with even more on the way.
Sling TV offers two base channel packages: Sling Orange and Sling Blue. Sling Orange offers popular channels like ESPN, but is limited to a single stream — meaning subscribers can only view on one device at a time. Sling Blue offers many of the same channels as Orange along with a whole lot more, but is also missing some key channels — ESPN among them. Viewers can sign up for both packages and get a $5 discount, bringing the total to $40 per month.
You get to pick your poison, not have it spoon-fed to you.
Apart from the basic packages, $5 add-on packs like News Extra, Kids Extra, and other bundles can be added on top. There are no sign-up fees or contracts either, and there’s even a respectable selection of movies for rent in high-def for $4 each, or standard-def for $3. And while the picture may not be quite as clear or reliable as cable or satellite TV right now, Sling TV is affordable and easy to use, and the picture has significantly improved since launch.
In addition to the channel package add-ons, Sling TV also offers premium add-ons, including live and on-demand HBO programming for $15/month on top of your base package package, the same price as the HBO Now standalone app. You can find out more in our new Sling TV hands-on guide.
Meanwhile, Sony’s Playstation Vue service has moved from its Playstation 3 and PS4 bonds to include Chromecast, Roku, Apple TV, and Amazon Fire TV devices. While Vue’s slew of channels make it much more comprehensive, until recently it was a much bigger investment than Sling TV, starting at $40 per month and moving up to $45, and $55 tiers. However, Vue has since added its new Slim packages, which drop local channels (available only in select cities including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, San Francisco, and Miami), but also drop the price to a very competitive $30, $35, and $45 respectively.
Vue also offers ESPN’s glut of channels with the packages available nationwide, as opposed to being resigned to just a few cities. On the other hand, the service also recently lost the rights to Viacom-owned channels like Comedy Central, MTV, and Spike. The service tried to lessen the sting by adding channels like BBC America and NBA TV, but the threat of potentially losing key channels could serve as a warning to potential customers.
Sling TV and PlayStation Vue are just the start, as several others including DirecTV, Hulu, and Google have announced plans for competing live TV streaming services. AT&T’s DirecTV Now was officially unveiled on November 28 with a launch date of November 30. Like PlayStation Vue, this service is closer to old-fashioned cable than Sling TV, and offers four different programming packages.
The intro package, called Live A Little, offers more than 60 channels for $35 per month, while for $50, the Just Right package offers over 80 channels. The package given the most attention by DirecTV Now during its launch event was the $60 per month Go Big package, offering more than 100 channels, but if you’re looking for everything you can get, the Gotta Have It packages dishes up more than 120 channels for $80 per month. Finally, add-on channel packages like HBO and Cinemax are available for just $5 each — and no, that’s not a typo.
Keen on drawing both Sling TV and PlayStation Vue subscribers, DirecTV Now was announced with a number of deals, like offering the Go Big package — normally $60 per month — to early subscribers for just $35 per month. Other similar offers see the company offering free Fire TV Stick or Apple TV hardware to new subscribers who are willing to prepay for a a month or three.
Adjust your expectations
While Sling TV and the other live TV streaming services feel a little more like cable than, say, Netflix or Hulu, the cord-cutting experience is very different from what you’re used to, and you should expect an adjustment period. Quitting cable is like dealing with any other kind of lifestyle change: At first it may be awkward, perhaps even frustrating, but once you’ve grown accustomed to it, it feels natural. No, you won’t be doing much mindless channel surfing anymore, but there’s something satisfying about being more deliberate about your entertainment choices. You get to pick your poison, not have it spoon-fed to you.
And when it comes to cord cutting, choice is really what it’s all about (because it isn’t really about monstrous savings). With the modern piecemeal delivery method, you can build your entertainment empire as you see fit, choosing from all or none of our suggestions. Once you get the hang of it, there are even more options to choose from, with new selections popping up all the time. So if you’re tired of being pushed around by cable or satellite companies, and want to make your own way, follow our lead and cut the cord. We did. And we never looked back.
Updated 3-8-2017 by Brendan Hesse